Humankind cannot bear too much reality

I don’t apologise for quoting those words yet again because they have really hit home over the last few weeks. I think I would welcome being in the ‘state of blank mental oblivion’ that Theodore Zeldin deplores. Sometimes the only way is inward.

One aches at news of family members being killed near Christmas, like those in the Glasgow Bin lorry crash last year and the father and son from Cardiff killed crossing a road a few days ago. I can’t begin to imagine the feelings of the Syrian father who has just lost his wife and seven children fleeing ISIS. But to be honest the deaths of Stuart and Fraser Bates seem worse because the family worshipped at St Martin’s Church, Roath, as does a dear friend of mine. No man is an island, and because of my grief for the Bates family I can also mourn more genuinely with that Syrian father.

Just over three years ago my daughter and I had a visit from her Palliative Care Consultant and his team, who had provided amazing support over the preceding months. He seemed young to be tackling such a job; I suppose he was my daughter’s age—mid forties. Too young to be coping with death and dying.

At one point she turned to him with her beautiful, dimpled smile and said, ‘Come on, then; tell me. How long? Six days, six weeks, six months.’
‘Not six months.’
In fact, it was less than a month
After he’d gone she said, philosophically, ‘Well, I suppose I’ve buggered up Christmas whatever happens.’

Yes, in a way. We all miss her like hell and never more so than when we’re together as a family, recalling her wit; she had an anarchic sense of humour. She’d been a consultant psychiatrist in the East End of London, so she’d needed that, but love and laughter were never far away when she was around.

As Dickens said at the start of A Tale of Two Cities—it was the best of times; it was the worst of times. It always is, somewhere. That’s what Christmas is for. That’s why Christ came. To reconcile the best and the worst and to give us joy and hope and laughter in the midst of misery, grief and pain and to share all those with each other. I truly thank God I am not in a ‘state of blank mental oblivion.’

Muddle and Mindfulness

In my blog, ten days ago, I made a remark about Mindfulness—a bit of a buzz word these days and frequently misused—which sounded very dismissive. I regret the way Mindfulness has often been taken up by fashion and inevitably trivialised and I was thinking about writing more about it when I read a confusing article in Monday’s Telegraph which was much more dismissive.

A lot of my time is spent musing about Stuff I know nothing about, in an effort to find some sense or reason or purpose in something apparently lunatic. However, when it comes to Mindfulness I do know what I’m talking about. I was a Mindfulness guinea pig.
“Mindfulness” in its present incarnation was the brainchild of Jon Kabut Zinn, in his Stress Reduction Clinic in the University of Massachusetts Medical School way back in 1979. Stress can mean anything these days: too many e mails, too much twitter, Christmas! That’s a stress producer second to none.

Kabat Zinn’s stress sufferers were different. They were enduring crippling pain, cancer treatment, trauma horror—you name it. Their stress was life changing and their efforts to overcome it were tough, determined and persistent. As a result of this work Kabat Zinn published a book in 1991 with the title: “Full Catastrophe Living: using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain and illness.” Nothing trivial about that, then.

About this time John Teasdale, Mark Williams and others, in what was then the Applied Psychology Unit of Cambridge University were working with Kabat Zinn and I was one of many volunteers they used for a fascinating raft of experiments. It was tough stuff.
Which brings me to the Daily Telegraph article and my resulting confusion. Perhaps it loses something in translation from broadsheet to screen but the on-line version seems very muddled (or should that be muddied).

The headline reads: “’Mindfulness isn’t preparing children for the real world,’ headmaster warns.” This sentence is then repeated underneath a photo of a woman, and four children aged, I would guess, about 8 years old, sitting cross legged on rugs on the grass in a garden, with their hands on their heads.

Next comes an advert and the by line, Javier Espinoza, and then we get to the proper start of the feature.

“Mindfulness – a meditation technique that teaches people to focus on the present moment – is not preparing children to cope with the pressures of the real world, the headmaster of Ampleforth College has said.”

Then the print splits into two columns. In the left hand box we read “Mindfulness has its place and young people have a lot of stress these days. They need to be very resilient.” David Lambon, head of Ampleforth College. The column alongside reads: “David Lambon, who is the first lay headmaster at one of the UK’s top fee-paying Roman Catholic schools, said that instead schools should equip pupils with values that will guide them through the vicissitudes of life.”

At this stage I’ve worked out that the headmaster concerned is David Lambon of Ampleforth College, but that’s the only fact I know for sure. It’s a senior school so the photo of the children with their hands on their heads has nothing to do with anything as far as I can see. As a guinea pig I never sat crosslegged on the floor with my hands on my head, though I have vivid memories of looking at a raisin*. But as to what Lambon actually said? Does he think children should be taught something instead of mindfulness or does he think mindfulness has its place.

Next: “However, in an interview with the Sunday Telegraph, Mr Lambon said: Mindfulness has its place and young people have a lot of stress these days. They need to be very resilient.” There’s an awful lot of repetition in this piece. Also, I hadn’t realised before that I was reading a report of an interview rather than the actual interview. At least we know who the interviewee is, or do we?

Now there is another big picture, this time of a very old man, looking vaguely like Einstein. David Lambon is a mere 46 years old, so who on earth is this? I almost gave up reading at this point—I expect most readers of this blog have already done so—but finally we get to what David Lambon was really saying.

“We need to give our children a framework, a compass for life . . .” “. . . a faith that is deeply rooted.” “. . . values they can rely on no matter what . . .” “Gospel values will be with you for every situation in life . . .”

So, there you have it. A long, in depth interview with the headmaster of a leading Roman Catholic school, which manages to mention ‘gospel values’ but avoids any mention of Christianity, or religion, let alone God or Jesus Christ, and doesn’t do justice to Mindfulness either. I wonder what David Lambon really said; I wonder what Mr Espinoza has tactfully omitted in order not to give offence, and I wonder if they’re both only too aware of what there’s no point saying these days?

The photograph of the old man? He’s 84 year old Theodore Zeldin, an Oxford academic, who has said, in reference to Mindfulness, that too many people were avoiding using their brains and instead escaping into a state of blank mental oblivion.

At the end of all that I’m still a confused misfit!

*To be continued.

More than 20 years later I still have great respect for Mindfulness and all I learned in my guinea pig years.

Sheep May Safely Graze

“Sheep may safely graze , where the shepherd keeps his watch.”


Trouble was, the shepherd had to be at a local sheep sale. The minute his back was turned, like naughty teenagers, his sheep were off to pastures new, and what a delicious pasture my garden turned out to be.

If I had an immaculate town garden I would probably have been horrified but I was actually delighted to see them for two reasons. They make excellent lawn mowers and prolific fertilizers. (Had they been pigs or goats or cows or deer I wouldn’t have been so welcoming.) I’m sorry, now, that when two shepherdesses arrived to lead them home I didn’t take a photo of them, with their sheep, looking up into the sky, watching for the angels.

I understand why God sent Gabriel to shepherds that first Christmas. Even today, shepherds, chugging around the sheep on their quad bikes, still notice things much more minutely than most of us. They see clearly and listen intently. In their own way they ‘do’ mindfulness without realizing it.

We have had many visitors over the years, who look at the lambs gambolling in spring, and ask why I’m not a vegetarian. In return, I ask them what they think these hillsides would look like without the sheep. How many pet lambs would anyone want? In any case sheep farming is NOT like farming battery hens. Many sheep spend up to eight years roaming these fields—with the occasional garden as a bonus—well fed, well looked after, and with very few worries.*

As for eating lamb, why not? Christ did. Being a carpenter, another carefully chosen occupation by God, He was skilled with His hands and immensely practical. Not only would He have eaten lamb, he probably cooked it as well; after all He cooked fish, which is technically much more difficult to get right.

If you think this description of a sheep’s life is too idyllic here is a picture of a sheep’s main worry! Guess which is the sheep killer.

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Daunted by hob-goblins and fiends?

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Before you waste any time figuring out the significance of the cup of coffee I’ll tell you—it’s a symbol for today’s religious education. But I’ll get to that later.

We went to a candlelit Advent Carol Service on Sunday night up in the hills above the North Wales coast. The church was beautiful, big, though well filled, with people and choir from the nearby town swelling the congregation of locals.
‘O come, o come, Emmanuel’, naturally and the response to the intercessions was ‘Maranatha—come Lord Jesus’, but I couldn’t help wondering how many of us actually mean that. He comes, but do we open the door?

It was the traditional sort of service that I have enjoyed all my life, and that’s one of the problems. There were a few younger people there and half a dozen children but most of the congregation, though younger than I am, weren’t that much younger! My generation are good at many things—faithfulness, loyalty, stoicism—but I’m the first to admit we’re no longer quite so full of fervour, zeal and passion as we used to be. This isn’t a criticism of the Vicar for not laying on a jolly, noisy free-for-all that might have been thought to appeal to a younger crowd. She produced a thoughtful, satisfying service which was exactly what that congregation wanted. Had there been a demand, or even a tentative need for something more jazzy I know she would have been delighted to provide it.

So where are the young Christian men and women who still have the energy and enthusiasm to fight for their beliefs? What is it about Islam that attracts not just young men, but young women and even parents with young families, who are prepared to fight to the death for what they believe? Much of their hatred and violence is targeted specifically againstChristians. So why don’t we fight back?

I don’t mean with air strikes. My earliest memories date back to the early 1940s and since then there has scarcely been any time when I haven’t been living with wars and rumours of wars somewhere in the world; and in all that time bombing hell out of people has failed to give us lasting peace.

What ever happened to ‘He who would valiant be, ‘gainst all disaster,’? Daunted by hobgoblins and foul fiends, I suppose; certainly there are some very foul-mouthed fiends on-line who seem to be just as terrified of Christianity as ISIS is.

I dare to say that I can’t help thinking the complete lack of genuine Christian education in schools is part of the trouble. We are still supposed to be a Christian country but at the moment what are we giving children that provides them with a strong, tough base on which to build their lives. Surely that lack of a solid foundation must be part of the reason there are so many victims terrified of hearing ideas they don’t like, and needing safe spaces in which to feel secure.

Another weakness I suspect is the tendency to skim, without ever going deeply and troublingly into a subject. I still haven’t got over the shock I felt meeting a girl who had got A* in her Eng.Lit GCSE without ever reading more than a few selected sections of “Pride and Prejudice.” How could you have P & P in your hands, savour that fabulous first sentence and not read on? All right, Jane Austen isn’t for everyone so think about your own favourite book; what would you have missed if you’d only ever read an odd section here and there?

And this is where the cup of cappuccino comes in. Maths and physics, for example, are like an espresso—powerful, and you have to get it right. English, obviously, and Religious studies are more like cappuccino. You can skim the foam off the top—which promptly disappears— drink some of the coffee and leave the dregs, which is where the true essence of the coffee is. But it isn’t really satisfying—you’ll need another in an hour.

There may have been a small sign of hope on local BBC tv earlier this month. 650 junior school children were taken to a Mosque in Cardiff to learn about Islam. However, it is only a sign of hope if we soon see the same children being taken to the Cathedral and being taught the Lord’s Prayer while they’re there. Otherwise it’s still more lunacy.


An afterthought. The girl who objected to the GCSE Music syllabus because it didn’t include any women composers has been voted one of the 100 most influential women in the world. There’s a bit more amorphous foam for you.